Practicing medicine while also practicing your faith can be a challenge.
In a career field known for long hours and high pressure, some local doctors say one of their best professional affiliations has less to do with medicine and more to do with faith.
The Catholic Medical Association (CMA) is the largest association of Catholic physicians and healthcare professionals in the United States, with history tracing back to 1912. The CMA’s Harrisburg Guild formed in 2009.
The association’s mission is “Forming and supporting current and future physicians to live and promote the principles of the Catholic faith in the science and practice of medicine.”
Dr. Greg Burke is a board-certified internal medicine physician in Danville and the current guild president.
He was serving his residency in the Philadelphia area in the 1980s when he was introduced to the CMA through its publication “The Linacre Quarterly,” the oldest and longest ongoing bioethics journal in the United States. Dr. Burke said he was welcomed as a contributor and a member of the CMA.
“I found a home,” he said, describing the comfort of an organization where people are devoutly Catholic and devoted to medicine.
“I was thrilled to learn that there were other Catholic physicians out there who were committed to their faith,” he said.
The association joins the professional support of the medical field and the spiritual fellowship of Catholicism.
Dr. Elizabeth Frauenhoffer is the Harrisburg Guild’s secretary and a doctor of Anatomic & Clinical Pathology, Anatomic Pathology and Cytopathology with Penn State Hershey.
She also spent some time in the Philadelphia guild before the Harrisburg one was founded. What really hooked her was attending a national conference in Pittsburgh. Dr. Frauenhoffer said she couldn’t believe the medical expertise and scope of the presentations at the gathering. But it was the added layer of faith that really spoke to her.
“It really crystalized the teachings of the Church as it applied to medical practices,” she said. “It was like the perfect world.”
Attending a professional conference in which there also was 24-hour Adoration, daily Mass and the Sacrament of Reconciliation was so secure and encouraging, Dr. Frauenhoffer said.
The Harrisburg Guild is pleased to serve as the planning and sponsoring Guild for the 91st Annual National Catholic Medical Association Educational Conference in Denver, September 8-10, 2022.
Although the Harrisburg Guild doesn’t have a formal organization solely for medical students or residents, Dr. Frauenhoffer does try to work with those groups when possible. The doctors said it can be very isolating and stressful to live your Catholic faith in the medical profession, but particularly so when you are still learning medicine.
It’s important to tell students and residents that you can have your faith, practice medicine and advocate that the Catholic viewpoint is valid, Dr. Frauenhoffer said.
“It makes sense and it’s valid and it’s defensible,” she said.
Dr. Frauenhoffer gave the example of a medical student who didn’t want to observe a procedure because it didn’t align with her morals. It was not something that was required for her field of study, but it was expected that she would view nonetheless. Dr. Frauenhoffer said she is happy to be able to offer some guidance to those in such difficult situations, and was able to advocate on that student’s behalf.
“Practicing moral medicine is actually good medicine,” Dr. Frauenhoffer said. “If you practice your faith, it is going to be good medicine.”
Dr. Burke agreed, saying that Catholic doctors should know that their beliefs are beneficial to everyone in the long run.
“We think our vision of help is the most loving way to practice medicine,” he said.
Both doctors also spoke about the significance of the CMA’s tradition of the annual White Mass, so named for the traditional color worn by those in the healing profession of medicine. The Mass gathers health care professionals under the patronage of St. Luke to ask God’s blessing on patients, doctors, nurses and caregivers.
In general, the White Mass occurs in the fall, close to St. Luke’s feast day. For the Harrisburg Guild, the Mass is celebrated at St. Patrick Cathedral. The doctors said it is a particularly moving spiritual experience.
In observance of World Day of the Sick on February 11, the guild sponsored a Holy Hour of prayer at St. Joseph Church in Danville. Several dozen people attended to pray for those who are ill and for their caregivers.
The Harrisburg Guild has also paired with the St. Thomas More Society of Central Pennsylvania – a local organization for Catholic lawyers, judges and lawmakers – on some matters of ethics and law. Dr. Burke said the Guild is grateful to be able to use its medical expertise to weigh in on legal or legislative matters if appropriate. The two groups also worked together to plan and participate in a Lenten Day of Reflection for their members earlier this month.
Dr. Linda Chambers is the Harrisburg Guild’s treasurer and a family medicine specialist in Hershey. She also pointed to the collaboration with lawyers and other healthcare workers as a critical component of the CMA.
“By such networking, we encourage each other and share ideas on how to implement our faith in practical ways in our work, especially when the general culture challenges our religious freedom,” she said. “Catholic physicians and providers in particular, depending on our specialty, may run up against pressure to go against Catholic teaching.”
Dr. Burke said he absolutely feels the work of the Holy Spirit when he looks at the history of the Catholic Medical Association. Although it has been around in one name or another since 1912, Dr. Burke said interest in the association significantly dwindled in the late 1960s, going from 10,000 members and about 100 guilds nationwide to only three active guilds at one point.
“It was literally in need of CPR,” he said. Today, there are approximately 100 active guilds again and Dr. Burke feels like there’s a strong future for the CMA.
“It’s a great story about the Holy Spirit,” he said.
The Harrisburg Guild is eager to welcome additional members. Membership information is available on the group’s website, as is more of its history, mission and activities.
It certainly can be hard for busy doctors to find a time to meet or communicate, but the Harrisburg Guild members said they are committed to creating a safe and sacred space. They also welcome new ideas in terms of ways to connect among members and how to serve each other.
“We want it to be a respite,” Dr. Burke said, “not in a work way, but in a reflective way.”
The association is ideal for doctors who put their Catholicism in front of everything.
“The first name of it is ‘Catholic,’ not ‘medical,’” said Dr. Frauenhoffer.
Dr. Burke said the organization might not be the best fit for someone who sees themselves as medical first and Catholic second. However, he said they are open to membership from anyone who has an open mind about managing the importance of medicine and faith.
“The Church has all the answers,” Dr. Frauenhoffer said. “I see the CMA as a conduit of helping to bring that to everybody else, our patients and physicians.”
(Lisa Maddux is a freelance writer for The Catholic Witness.)
(Photos by Chris Heisey, The Catholic Witness.)
By Lisa Maddux, Special to The Witness